Essential New Music: Sally Anne Morgan’s “Thread”

Thread introduces Sally Anne Morgan as a solo artist who understands the task of being a folk musician in the 21st century. Anyone familiar with Morgan’s prior—and, quite likely, future—work as a fiddler with the Black Twig Pickers and as half of vocal/instrumental duo House And Land already knows that she can play the old songs with infectious passion and sing them like they’re real. But on Thread, she uses stories from the past to invite us to think about the present, adding some stories of her own. 

The album is book-ended by songs you might already know by Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Mary Black. “Polly On The Shore” relates the dying regrets of a young buccaneer who’s pining for the love he left behind as he bleeds out; “Annachie Gordon” relates the death of another young woman, whose demise saves her from consummating her arranged marriage to a much older man. Of course, blood and sex have been the stuff of song since time immemorial. But just what was that young guy doing plundering the West Indies anyway? Why was that woman designated to marry a guy she didn’t pick? Pull the thread tight, and you’ll see these circumstances are drawn together by the pitiless engines of colonialism and capitalism, which turn anyone who lacks status and means into so much cannon fodder. If Morgan’s selection of covers thinks globally, her originals propose more locally attainable countermeasures. “Garden Song,” for example, extolls the pleasure and empowerment of living close to the earth, making sure that you know it’s her garden, no one else’s.

Morgan’s instrumentals also serve to bridge tradition and the present. “Sheep Shaped” (an original) and “Sugar In The Gourd” (a traditional tune that turns up a lot at fiddle competitions) are played with a strategically ragged edge and unerring timing; you can be sure that the arm pulling the bow is guided by deep knowledge of how to get folks to kick up some sawdust. But on “Ellemwood Meditation,” Morgan overdubs fiddle and piano to come up with a Blue Ridge mountaineer’s answer to Eno’s Music For Airports. Thread opens up several avenues for further exploration, leaving one curious where Morgan will go next. 

—Bill Meyer